Visiting artist Anna Deavere Smith hosts workshops
Anna Deavere Smith, known for her roles on “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie,” hosted acting and playwriting workshops at Saint Mary’s over the weekend, teaching participants that before they can run to a curtain call, they have to learn how to break a leg.
Smith said actors should block out distractions while they listen closely to their stage partners’ scripts and observe their gestures.
“It is really about being present with the other, and that’s the first step,” Smith said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What are the things that keep me from being present?’”
Through devoting complete attention to a scene, actors can best emulate reality, she said.
“I think that at a certain point while I’m rehearsing and performing, there could be something about that person that knocks on the door of my subconscious,” Smith said. “I’m not interested in that. I’m asking you today to free yourselves from that idea. I want you to think about what it means to focus on the other. So why not explore that other land that has absolutely nothing to do with you whatsoever?”
Smith said actors can make a greater impression on audience members if they take a natural approach, allowing themselves to experience every emotion the scene demands.
“You shouldn’t underestimate how much you can actually absorb if you are really listening,” Smith said. “When we open to others, they open to us, and then, we can go from me to you to we.”
Smith said actors should free themselves of inhibitions since they cannot always anticipate exactly what will happen on stage.
“You are inclined to want to come to conclusions quickly, but when asked to examine it, your conclusion is disrupted,” she said. “We wait for the people who appear to have the power to make us comfortable, but do we make them comfortable with us?’”
Smith said interpreting others’ gestures and learning the meanings behind their mannerisms helps actors more fully understand one another.
“If your aspiration is to become a communicator, whether that is to lead or to help someone who is suffering, wouldn’t it be useful to have a way of communicating that’s really in response to the moment?” Smith asked. “I don’t think we can know each other if we don’t make the jump to know each other.”
Smith said actors can give memorable performances if they take original approaches and make their characters different from anything audience members have seen before.
“We all are mimics, and we are sponges, so my question is always ‘When does it become individual?’” Smith said. “I don’t even like it that all babies cry exactly the same all over the world. I’m like, ‘Why can’t you laugh?’”
First year EV Dundon said Friday’s workshop built on her previous experience and helped her explore new and unfamiliar dimensions of acting.
“It’s so much harder than I thought,” Dundon said. “I’ve [acted] for a while, and I love it. It’s one of the most familiar things I’ve done … but I never realized that it’s not only memorizing lines.”
According to Dundon, Smith emphasized the importance of remaining open to others’ mannerisms and ways of speaking, for in embracing distinct gestures, actors can best portray their characters.
“I learned how to completely throw myself away and be someone totally different,” Dundon said. “It was challenging, but I felt like it helped because I’ve had struggles with that. I thought I had to have a little of myself that I could relate to, but now I don’t think so. Maybe I just need to throw it all away and start fresh.”
Dundon said she values the opportunity to learn from an expert such as Smith.
“To have a professional eye around us, that was a benefit because we are surrounded by students and professors who have had experience, but [Smith] has been on a TV show, and she’s been recognized from that show,” she said. “I think it’s important to see it from that perspective.”